Residents of Lancaster continue to fight plans to ‘regenerate’ their city with a new shopping centre that would increase the size of the city centre by around 50%. A London-based company called Centros has waved enough cash under the nose of the near-bankrupt Lancaster City Council that the latter agreed a 250-year lease of the site.
The shopping centre would create buildings and dead-ends where pedestrian access and cycle paths currently exist; build an 800-space, multi-storey car park and create new retail units in a centre where one in five retail units are currently vacant. In order to provide Centros and the City Council with their shiny new shopping centre, three listed buildings at the heart of the city would be levelled.
Lancaster is a beautiful city that has many similarities with Edinburgh. Sandstone buildings dominate the skyline and surrounding areas; independent businesses are thriving and, on the edge of the city, imposing hills catch your eye as you wander through. The last thing Lancaster wants, according to its residents, is trees in tubs calling themselves ‘open spaces’ and a footbridge across a gridlocked road connecting one half of the city to the other.
The council approved the plans last December after a shameful consultation. ‘It’s Our City’, one of many groups set up to campaign against the ‘development’, raised their concerns along with local businesses and residents to the Council prior to the vote. Many objections were well researched and legally grounded, arguing that the project would break many laws. The councillors, however, did not even take the time to look at the concerns raised before voting in favour of the ‘development’ towards the end of last year. Hopes are now hanging on a public enquiry and the actions of Lancastrians committed to stopping this newest chapter in the gentrification of UK inner cities.
Residents had been vocal in their opposition to the planned shopping centre since it was first conceived in 2002. In March 2008, people took to the streets at the Carnival of Culture, in what remains Lancaster’s biggest protest in living memory. Labour Councillor and City Council leader Ian Barker was voted out in last year’s election in what had been considered a Labour safe seat. The reason, apparently, is that he had been described by Centros as a ‘champion’ of their development.
Last December, 12 Lancastrians took a day trip to London to protest at the Centros’s office. For the four who D-locked themselves inside, there wasn’t much sight-seeing. The group wanted an opportunity to get answers to the questions their Council had brushed under the carpet. For example, how could Centros claim the development would not increase car journeys in Lancaster when the financial viability of the development is based on people travelling to shop from other towns and cities?
Rebecca, who works as a teacher in Lancaster, told Corporate Watch that, “if we take the threat of climate change seriously, developments like that proposed by Centros simply cannot happen.” Aurora, a student, added: “It is inconceivable to me that developments which encourage car journeys and unsustainable consumption habits can continue in the face of Climate Chaos.”
At Westminster Magistrates court in December, the four pleaded not guilty on the basis of necessity, that is, that the development will contribute to climate chaos. The defence has similarities to the Greenpeace Kingsnorth case, where campaigners wrote Gordon on a chimney stack. Though their actions did not directly stop or reduce carbon emissions, they were part of a movement that seeks to achieve that. The four were acquitted of aggravated trespass during by the magistrates court this April. The judged said that, although it was clear that the group had been trespassing and that the work of some office staff had been disrupted, there was not sufficient evidence that the disruption was intentional, because the staff left their desks at their own free will, and chose voluntarily to congregate around the protesters.
The protesters commented: “The court did not allow us to talk about climate change. Nor did we get the opportunity to question the legality of the development, even though it has now been called in for a public enquiry based on 17 separate pieces of legislation that it is likely to contravene. We also wished it was possible to question the Centros witnesses about how they had managed to con the council into spending public money to represent them at a public enquiry, rather than spending a penny of their own. The verdict, however, was a great relief and a confirmation of the right to protest in a way that is more direct and effective than the so-called democratic channels. which have so far failed us.”
More details on the campaign’s past, present and future can be found at www.carnivalofculture.org.uk and www.itsourcity.org.uk or http://virtual-lancaster.blogspot.com/2009/04/centros-campaigners-not-guilty.html.